Spirit of Grace Ministries
Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Charles Wesley
Revivalist, Psalmist, Evangelist

Charles Wesley

by Dennis Pollock

Although largely overshadowed by his famous brother John, the founder of the Methodist Church, Charles Wesley was a monumental figure in his own right. Along with his brother and their friend George Whitefield, these three men were used by God to change the face, shape, and future of both England and Christianity. Through the movement that sprang from their ministries the church took a quantum leap forward in evangelism, in missions, in its concern for the poor, and in its understanding of the gospel. Slavery was abolished in England largely because of the Methodist-driven evangelical movement which kept on protesting until this monster was dead and buried.

Charles was the eighteenth of Samuel and Susannah Wesley's nineteen children, ten of which lived to adulthood. He quickly evidenced a brilliant mind combined with an emotional nature. Many highly intelligent people are introverted and detached, but not Charles. He was at home reading the classics or laughing and joking with his friends. As was true with all his siblings he was raised and educated by his mother in his early years, who was determined that her children should know and love the Scriptures. Susannah had a deep respect for God and His laws, and did all she could to make sure her children developed the same attitude. The one thing Susannah could not share with Charles or the others was the knowledge of salvation through faith in Jesus. Like almost everyone else in that darkened age, she knew nothing of justification by faith, or the concept of being born again. Christianity for her consisted of morality, daily prayers, charitable works, and a knowledge of the Bible. Charles, along with John accepted Momma's instruction and came to view the world and Christianity through her eyes.

In spite of their financially stressed situation, their father was determined that John and Charles would have the finest education, and managed to get them enrolled in Oxford University when they reached a suitable age. They were diligent in their studies, but soon became far more interested in spiritual matters than academia. They formed a club with like minded young men and began to encourage one another to devote their lives and their time completely to God. They met frequently and shared favorite spiritual authors, and held one another accountable for their lives. Early rising was a must, as was fasting twice a week, taking communion every Sunday, and visiting the prisons regularly. As yet none of them had experienced the new birth, but not knowing it was necessary, they all took pride in their ascetic lives, and assumed they were steadily making their way toward heaven.

Failure in America

After graduation Charles was ordained a minister in the Church of England and planned a quiet life as a local minister. But God had other plans for him. When his brother John decided to become a missionary to America, he persuaded Charles, who always had a hard time saying no to John, to accompany him. Upon landing in America John ended up as a parish priest in Savannah, Georgia, and Charles was sent 100 miles south to a settlement named Frederica, where he would serve as secretary for Indian affairs and local pastor. For a highly intelligent Oxford scholar brimming with spiritual ambition and living at a level of self-control far beyond the norm, Charles surely must have expected to see great success in his new ministry. It didn't happen.

Charles Wesley's ministry in America was an absolute nightmare. His rigorous, legalistic approach to Christianity found no favor among the independent Americans under his charge. He tried to establish daily prayer assemblies in the church, having drums beaten to announce when all the people should gather and pray. He assumed that four times a day would be about right. His congregation thought this ridiculous and almost nobody showed up. The leader of the settlement, Colonel Oglethorpe, heard a false report of Charles spreading scandalous rumors about him, and did everything he could to make the young pastor's life miserable. Attendance at his church soon dropped to five or six regulars. After about three months of this torture, John agreed to trade places with him, and so he went to Savannah. Shortly after that, to his immense relief, he was ordered by Oglethorpe to return to England. Charles Wesley would never return to America again.

Salvation at last

Of the three men who became prominent leaders in England's great awakening of the 1700's, George Whitefield experienced grace first. Charles was to be second. Upon returning to England with his own weakness and failure fresh upon his mind, he was open to hear the gospel of grace. He heard it from three men: two alive and one dead. The first witness was his friend, George Whitefield. Not only had the young man received Christ, but he was now preaching Him all over London with incredible power, and no church could hold the people who eagerly gathered to listen. Whitefield preached from many texts, but his primary message was the new birth as a definite experience of grace. Another minister, Moravian Peter Bohler, had private talks with Charles and also emphasized salvation by grace through faith in Christ. At one point Peter asked him, "Do you hope to be saved?" When Charles enthusiastically replied in the affirmative, Bohler asked him, "For what reason?" Wesley stated, "Because I have used my best endeavors to serve God." Bohler just shook his head and said no more. That shake of the head was like a full-length sermon to Charles, and did much to undercut his ideas of salvation through good works and sincere efforts.

The final touch was added by a witness that had lived and preached many generations ago, Martin Luther. In reading Luther's comments on salvation Charles finally got it. One day in late May he trusted in Christ alone, and experienced the witness of the Holy Spirit that he belonged to Christ. He writes: "I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in the hope of loving Christ… I saw that by faith I stood…" Two day later he began to write a hymn of praise to God. The writing of hymns and spiritual poetry would become a major dimension of his life and calling. Eventually over 6,000 hymns would flow from his anointed pen. Some of them we still sing today: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "And Can It Be," "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," and "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," to name a few. Charles' eloquent and beautiful hymns would serve as fuel for the Methodist movement, and be  source of blessing to generation after generation of believers, even to the present day.

Anointed Preacher

But Charles Wesley became far more than a writer of hymns; he became one of England's most dynamic preachers. It didn't start out that way. In his earliest sermons he followed the pattern of most of his contemporaries and read his sermons word for word and line for line. This enabled him to say exactly what he wanted to say, but didn't leave much room for much emotion, and certainly did not produce the kind of inspiring, revival sermons that would later become his trademark. After five months of this, he found himself wondering whether there was a better way. One day he found himself in a church which had a small handful of members present. Figuring such a small crowd might be the ideal setting to experiment a little, Charles put aside his notes and preached on justification by faith for forty-five minutes, straight from his heart. God blessed the message and Wesley soon gave up on the idea of reading his sermons.

Just as his friend, George Whitefield, had led the way in salvation, so he pioneered a new dimension of preaching. He began to preach out in the fields. Being a proper Church of England man, Charles would never have tried this, but seeing Whitefield's outdoor ministry so signally blessed, with many thousands coming to hear him preach, he began to consider the idea. But Whitefield would not allow him the luxury of weighing the pros and cons at his leisure – not while souls were perishing and the need for evangelistic preaching was so dire. Whitefield forced Charles' hand by building up a crowd of 10,000 listeners who came to hear him preach outdoors, and then telling them that he would be gone next Sunday, but that Charles Wesley would take his place. Charles could hardly say no, and so went forth that day to preach to the huge crowd. It was sink or swim, and Wesley ended up swimming very well indeed. His spirit, his mind, his voice, his love for the gospel, his deep compassion for people, and an undeniable anointing of the Holy Spirit all united to create a powerful and highly effective revival preacher.

For the next sixteen years Charles traversed the highways and byways of England, preaching in churches and outdoors to massive crowds. Multitudes found Christ through his powerful ministry. Wesley seemed to have had the ability to be both likeable and forceful at the same time. His brother John Wesley and friend George Whitefield were likewise crisscrossing England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland preaching the message of the new birth through faith in Jesus Christ. Many of their hearers were from the lowest classes of society, but there were also converts from the aristocracy. Under the powerful, anointed ministries of these men and their disciples, the very face of England was changing. From government officials to the clergy, to the lords and ladies, to the coal miners, men and women were hearing the message, "You must be born again," and many were responding. Crowds of ten and twenty thousand people would gather in the fields to hear sermons from the fiery evangelists. And all of this without the least bit of sound amplification!

It was not all glory and popularity. There were elements in nearly every town that absolute hated this new movement, and things often became violent. Wesley reports being pelted with stones while he preached at one place, many of the rocks hitting him in the face. Still, the courageous preacher continued his message until finished, and after preaching prayed for his persecutors, calling them "servants of their master, the devil." Another time Charles and some of his friends were forced to take refuge in a house from a mob that seemed intent upon killing them. The crowd, enraged at not being able to break through the locked doors, began to attempt to demolish the entire house. A sheriff showed up and told Charles that if he would promise to never preach there again, he might be able to get him safely out of town. Wesley indignantly replied, "I shall promise no such thing." Finally Charles and his companion rode out of town on horses, while the mob glared at them with hate-filled eyes.

Latter years

It was an exciting but exhausting life, and as he approached the age of fifty, Charles gave up his role as traveling evangelist. He was married with three children by now, and felt the need to leave itinerant ministry to others. He by no means gave up ministry however. Nearly until the time of his death, thirty years later, he continued to preach locally, write hymns, visit prisoners, and counsel believers. As is the case with all God's servants (save Jesus) Wesley was by no means perfect. He was a man of strong passions, and experienced euphoric heights of joy, and terrible depths of depression. He broke fellowship with his good friend George Whitefield over the doctrine of predestination, but later sought renewed fellowship, which Whitefield gladly gave. Perhaps Charles' most glaring error was the time he broke up his brother John's intended marriage. Charles became convinced that John's fiancé was too low-class to be the wife of the leader of the Methodists, and convinced her to quickly marry a former beau, behind John's back. It was snobbish and stupid to interfere, especially since this lady, Grace Murray, showed an excellent disposition and a tremendous heart for ministry. John was devastated at this loss, and quickly married on the rebound, his new bride turning out to be a terrible match, who made his life miserable.

If we want our spiritual heroes flawless, we will always be disappointed. Charles Wesley had his cracks, but he was nonetheless a mighty instrument in the hands of God. Having discovered the doctrine of the new birth by grace through faith in Jesus, he preached it faithfully, and filled over fifty hymnbooks with songs that celebrated the blessed gospel of the glorious God. Along with his brother, John, and friend, George Whitefield, he changed the face of England and Europe, and set in motion a wave of blessing in the church that endures to this day.

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